The Covid-19 global pandemic has thrown our world into chaos. Already, the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation have warned of a “looming global food crisis” if the coronavirus is not managed properly. The prices of world’s two staples: wheat and rice have risen sharply.

Agrarian production is falling all over the world. In India, the government has been taking precautions to ensure that the harvest season and the farm inputs supply chain are not disrupted. But on the ground, it’s clear that the agriculture system has been fractured.

From pineapple to tea, and other sub-sectors like seeds and farm inputs, the sector is in deep shock. Here are some suggestions for what the government could be doing to ensure that Indian farms do not grind to a halt.

Short-term measures

1. Stop harassment and violence by authorities: Despite notifications, the police is forcing farm input shops selling seeds, fertiliser and so on to stay shut. A strict notification should be immediately issued to the police to stop doing so, especially in rural areas.

2. Covid agricultural helpline: We need to convert the agriculture ministry’s Kisan call centre 1800 180 1551 into a Covid-19 resource centre. Scientists from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and state agricultural universities should be available on this helpline.

3. Social media awareness: A special video and social media material, including WhatApp videos, needs to be distributed by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research about social distancing and farm hygiene. Registered farmers, should be contacted through SMS.

4. Railway operations: The Railways should actively start transporting farm inputs to all states and grain and fresh produce from the hinterland to the cities. Passenger coaches – air-conditioned ones especially – should be used to transport perishables. This will bring additional revenue for the Railways and also help tackle food security concerns. Farm machinery could also be transported by the railways.

Recognised freight agents of the Railways should be exempted from the lockdown and help with the loading and unloading operations at railway yards.

The Railway chairman could also consider concessional rates for smaller and medium seed companies and agri-inputs companies.

5. Seed stimulus package: A stimulus package should be rolled out for the seed industry, especially small and medium companies. Interest-free loans or low interest loans could be included in this package.

6. Agri-allied sector rejuvenation: The agri-input ecosystem is frozen right now, so the government should allow all sub-trades and manufacturing units associated with agri-inputs to function again. For example, the seed industry also depends on packaging and paper units, which should be allowed to function. The cost of special insurance for the workers should be the borne by the employers and all safety regulation should be followed.

7. Reopen mandis and market: All markets and mandis should be made functional, if possible with minimal staff. E-nam, the national agriculture market electronic trading portal that networks the mandis run by Agricultural Produce Market Committees, could play a vital role at this time.

8. Galvanise transportation: Transportation services are critical for agricultural produce and inputs to move back and forth from farmers’ fields. District authorities should consult with truck and transport companies and immediately start operations both within states and between them.

9. Village infrastructure for grain storage: Village schools and block-level building could be used to store grain and other produce where necessary. They should be used as make shift granaries for small and marginal farmers.

Credit: Omkar Phatak

Long-term measures

1. Decentralised agricultural production: “Centralisation cannot be sustained and defended without adequate force,” Mohandas Gandhi once noted. This is applicable to our current agricultural situation. Without an active transportation system, famine awaits our nation. We must reorient our agricultural policy towards decentralisation. Instead of clusters and “one district one crop” schemes, we need to follow a European or swadeshi design and opt for multi-cropping, especially around major urban centres.

We need to form sub-clusters within the districts, where possible, that can support the district’s staple needs: rice, wheat, oilseeds, lentil, vegetables and the like. Each district or groups of districts in a 100- km radius should have adequate warehousing and cold storage facilities. This should be even done at village and block level. Imagine the district urban centre as a circle, surround by many other zones that together can sustain food and farm supplies for at least a buffer of five months, with no or minimal transport services.

2. Seed hubs and zones: Each district should have seed production and blocks should have National Seed Corporation warehouses to hold adequate stocks. If this it not possible within each district, at least each sub-zone within the state should have ample seed production zones. This can be done through seed producing Farm Producer Organisations.

3. Green zones: All major cities by law should have a green zone around them, where farmers practice sustainable agriculture and agro-forestry. This will allow their produce to be transported quickly to the cities.

4. Food sufficient cities: We need to create self-sufficient food ecosystems around and within cities, so residents still have access to food in times of crisis or if there is a lack of transport. In peace time, the farmers around the cities will be able to supply food to the cities. India should have an urban food garden policy. Similar models are proven to be successful in American and European cities. This will drastically reduce “food miles” (the distance food must travel from farm to table) and also help carbon sequestration within the cities. Horticulture departments within the cities should have ready plan to convert public parks into vegetables gardens, if necessary.

5 Agro-ecological farming: The government should lay greater emphasis on organic farming and seed saving in the rural and rain-fed areas. Villages should be encouraged to grow a diversity of crops including millets and should work with adopt evolutionary participatory breeding with the help of state agricultural universities and decrease their reliance on market. The government could create a special brand to market produce from these areas.

6 Develop food ecosystems: All states should pay close attention to developing the entire food production eco-system, which will include seed production zones, complimented by warehouses, markets, and agricultural universities. This should also have decentralised system of distribution along the lines of the Mother Dairy or Safal models, with a deep penetration so food supplies can reach citizens, easily and reasonably.

Indra Shekhar Singh is the Director, Policy and Outreach, for the National Seed Association of India.